Root Bodhisattva Vows


A vow (sdom-pa) is a subtle invisible form on a mental continuum, which shapes behavior. Specifically, it is a restraint from an "uncommendable action" (kha-na ma-tho-ba), either one that is naturally destructive (rang-bzhin-gyi kha-na ma-tho-ba) or one that Buddha prohibited (bcas-pa'i kha-na ma-tho-ba) for specific individuals who are training to reach specific goals. An example of the former is taking the life of another; an example of the later is eating after noon, which monastics need to avoid for their minds to be clearer for meditating at night and the next morning.

Of the two stages of developing bodhichitta, aspiring (smon-pa'i sems-bskyed) and engaged ('jug-pa'i sems-bskyed), only with the latter do we take the bodhisattva vows.

[For the difference between the two stages, see: Actions for Training from Pledged Bodhichitta]

Taking bodhisattva vows (byang-sems sdom-pa) entails promising to restrain from two sets of negative acts that Buddha prohibited for those training as bodhisattvas to reach enlightenment and to be of as much benefit to others as is possible:

  1. Eighteen actions that, if committed, constitute a root downfall (byang-sems-kyi rtsa-ltung)
  2. Forty-six types of faulty behavior (nyes-byas).

A root downfall means a loss of the entire set of bodhisattva vows. It is a "downfall" in the sense that it leads to a decline in spiritual development and hinders the growth of positive qualities. The word root signifies it is a root to be eliminated. For ease of expression, these two sets are usually called root and secondary bodhisattva vows. They offer excellent guidelines for the types of behavior to avoid if we wish to benefit others in as pure and full a way as is possible.

The late 10th-century Indian master Atisha received this particular version of the bodhisattva vows from his Sumatran teacher Dharmakirti (Dharmapala) of Suvarnadvipa, which he later transmitted to Tibet. This version derives from the Sutra of Akashagarbha (Nam-mkha'i snying-po mdo, Skt. Akashagarbhasutra), as cited in Compendium of Trainings (bSlabs-btus, Skt. Shikshasamuccaya), compiled in India by Shantideva in the 8th century. All Tibetan traditions currently follow it, while the Buddhist traditions deriving from China observe variant versions of the bodhisattva vows.

The promise to keep bodhisattva vows applies not only to this life, but also to each subsequent lifetime until enlightenment. Thus, as subtle forms, these vows continue on our mental continuums into future lives. If we have taken the vows in a previous lifetime, we do not lose them by unknowingly committing a full transgression now, unless we have taken them freshly during our current life. Retaking the vows for the first time in this life strengthens the momentum of our efforts toward enlightenment that has been growing ever since our first taking of them. Therefore, Mahayana masters emphasize the importance of dying with the bodhisattva vows intact and strong. Their abiding presence on our mental continuums continues building up positive force (merit) in future lives, even before we revitalize them by taking them again.

Following the Gelug founder, Tsongkhapa's 15th-century commentary on the bodhisattva vows, An Explanation of Bodhisattvas' Ethical Discipline: The Main Path to Enlightenment (Byang-chub sems-dpa'i tshul-khrims-kyi rnam-bshad byang-chub gzhung-lam), let us examine the eighteen negative actions that constitute a root downfall. Each has several stipulations we need to know.

The Eighteen Bodhisattva Root Downfalls

(1) Praising ourselves and/or belittling others

This downfall refers to speaking such words to someone in an inferior position. The motivation must contain either desire for profit, praise, love, respect, and so on from the person addressed, or jealousy of the person belittled. It makes no difference whether what we say is true or false. Professionals who advertise that they are Buddhists need to take care about committing this downfall.

(2) Not sharing Dharma teachings or wealth

Here, the motivation must be specifically attachment and miserliness. This negative action includes not only being possessive of our notes or tape recorder, but also being stingy with our time and refusing to help if needed.

(3) Not listening to others' apologies or striking others

The motivation for either of these must be anger. The first refers to an actual occasion when yelling at or beating someone and either that person pleads for forgiveness, or someone else begs us to stop and we refuse. The latter is simply hitting someone. Sometimes, it may be necessary to give rambunctious children or pets a smack to stop them from running into the road if they will not listen, but it is never appropriate or helpful to discipline out of anger.

(4) Discarding the Mahayana teachings and propounding made-up ones

This means to reject the correct teachings about some topic concerning bodhisattvas, such as their ethical behavior, and to make up in their stead a plausible yet misleading instruction on the same subject, claim it to be authentic, and then teach it to others in order to gain their following. An example of this downfall is when teachers who are eager not to scare away prospective students condone liberal moral behavior and explain that any type of action is acceptable so long as it does not harm others. We need not be a teacher to commit this downfall. We can commit it even in casual conversation with others.

(5) Taking offerings intended for the Triple Gem

This downfall is to steal or embezzle, either personally or through deputing someone else, anything offered or belonging to the Buddhas, Dharma, or Sangha, and then to consider it as ours. The Sangha, in this context, refers to any group of four or more monastics. Examples include embezzling funds donated for building a Buddhist monument, for printing Dharma books, or for feeding a group of monks or nuns.

(6) Forsaking the holy Dharma

Here the downfall is to repudiate or, by voicing our opinions, cause others to repudiate that the scriptural teachings of the shravaka (nyan-thos), pratyekabuddha (rang-rgyal), or bodhisattva vehicles are the Buddha's words. Shravakas are those who listen to a Buddha's teachings while they are still extant, while pratyekabuddhas are self-evolving practitioners who live primarily during dark ages when the Dharma is no longer directly available. To make spiritual progress, they rely on intuitive understanding gained from study and practice conducted during previous lives. The teachings for both of them collectively constitute the Hinayana, or "modest vehicle" for gaining personal liberation from samsara. The Mahayana vehicle emphasizes methods for attaining full enlightenment. Denying that all or just certain scriptures of either vehicle derive from the Buddha is a root downfall.

[See: The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana]

Maintaining this vow does not mean forsaking a historical perspective. Buddha's teachings were transmitted orally for centuries before being committed to writing, and thus corruptions and forgeries undoubtedly occurred. The great masters who compiled the Tibetan Buddhist canon certainly rejected texts they considered inauthentic. However, instead of basing their decisions on prejudice, they used the seventh-century Indian master Dharmakirti's criterion for assessing the validity of any material – the ability of its practice to bring about the Buddhist goals of better rebirth, liberation, or enlightenment. Stylistic differences among Buddhist scriptures, and even within a specific text, often indicate differences in time when various portions of the teachings were written down or translated into different languages. Therefore, studying the scriptures through methods of modern textual analysis can often be fruitful and does not conflict with this vow.

(7) Disrobing monastics or committing such acts as stealing their robes

This downfall refers specifically to doing something damaging to one, two, or three Buddhist monks or nuns, regardless of their moral status or level of study or practice. Such actions need to be motivated by ill will or malice, and include beating or verbally abusing them, confiscating their goods, or expelling them from their monasteries. Expelling monastics, however, is not a downfall if they have broken one of their four major vows: not to kill, especially another human being; not to steal, particularly something belonging to the monastic community; not to lie, specifically about spiritual attainments; and to maintain complete celibacy.

(8) Committing any of the five heinous crimes

The five heinous crimes (mtshams-med lnga) are (a) killing our fathers, (b) mothers, or (c) an arhat (a liberated being), (d) with bad intentions drawing blood from a Buddha, or (e) causing a split in the monastic community. The latter heinous crime refers to repudiating the Buddha's teachings and monastic institution, drawing monastics away from them, and enlisting them in one's own newly founded religion and monastic tradition. It does not refer to leaving a Dharma center or organization – especially because of corruption in the organization or its spiritual teachers – and founding another center that still follows Buddha's teachings. Moreover, the term sangha in this heinous crime refers specifically to the monastic community. It does not refer to "sangha" in the nontraditional usage of the term coined by Western Buddhists as an equivalent of the congregation of a Dharma center or organization.

(9) Holding a distorted, antagonistic outlook

This means to deny what is true and of value – such as the laws of behavioral cause and effect, a safe and positive direction in life, rebirth, and liberation from it – and to be antagonistic toward such ideas and those who hold them.

(10) Destroying places such as towns

This downfall includes intentionally demolishing, bombing, or degrading the environment of a town, city, district, or countryside area, and rendering it unfit, harmful, or difficult for humans or animals to live in.

(11) Teaching voidness to those whose minds are untrained

The primary objects of this downfall are persons with the bodhichitta motivation who are not yet ready to understand voidness. Such persons would become confused or frightened by this teaching and consequently abandon the bodhisattva path for the path of personal liberation. This can happen as a result of thinking that if all phenomena are devoid of inherent, findable existence, then no one exists, so why bother working to benefit anyone else? This action also includes teaching voidness to anyone who would misunderstand it and therefore forsake the Dharma completely, for example by thinking that Buddhism teaches that nothing exists and is therefore sheer nonsense. Without extrasensory perception, it is difficult to know whether others' minds are sufficiently trained so that they will not misconstrue the teachings on the voidness of all phenomena. Therefore, it is important to lead others to these teachings through explanations of graduated levels of complexity, and periodically to check their understanding.

(12) Turning others away from full enlightenment

The objects for this action are people who have already developed a bodhichitta motivation and are striving toward enlightenment. The downfall is to tell them they are incapable of acting all the time with generosity, patience, and so on – to say that they cannot possibly become a Buddha and so it would be far better for them to strive merely for their own liberation. Unless they actually turn their aim away from enlightenment, however, this root downfall is incomplete.

(13) Turning others away from their pratimoksha vows

Pratimoksha, or individual liberation vows (so-thar sdom-pa), include those for laymen, laywomen, probationary nuns, novice monks, novice nuns, full monks, and full nuns. The objects here are persons who are keeping one of these sets of pratimoksha vows. The downfall is to tell them as a bodhisattva there is no use in keeping pratimoksha, because for bodhisattvas all actions are pure. For this downfall to be complete, they must actually give up their vows.

(14) Belittling the shravaka vehicle

The sixth root downfall is to repudiate that the texts of the shravaka or pratyekabuddha vehicles are the authentic words of the Buddha. Here, we accept that they are, but deny the effectiveness of their teachings and maintain that it is impossible to become rid of disturbing emotions and attitudes by means of their instructions, for example those concerning vipassana (insight meditation).

(15) Proclaiming a false realization of voidness

We commit this downfall if we have not fully realized voidness, yet teach or write about it pretending that we have, because of jealousy of the great masters. It makes no difference whether any students or readers are fooled by our pretense. Nonetheless, they must understand what we explain. If they do not comprehend our discussion, the downfall is incomplete. Although this vow refers to proclaiming false realizations specifically of voidness, it is clear that we need to avoid the same also when teaching bodhichitta or other points of Dharma. There is no fault in teaching voidness before fully realizing it, however, so long as we openly acknowledge this fact and that we are explaining merely from our present levels of provisional understanding.

(16) Accepting what has been stolen from the Triple Gem

This downfall is to accept as a gift, offering, salary, reward, fine, or bribe anything someone else has stolen or embezzled, either personally or through deputing someone else, from the Buddhas, Dharma, or Sangha, including if it belonged only to one, two, or three monks or nuns.

(17) Establishing unfair policies

This means to be biased against serious practitioners, because of anger or hostility toward them, and to favor those with lesser attainments, or none at all, because of attachment to them. An example of this downfall is to give most of our time as teachers to casual private students who can pay high fees and to neglect serious students who can pay us nothing.

(18) Giving up bodhichitta

This is abandoning the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all. Of the two levels of bodhichitta, aspiring and involved, this refers specifically to discarding the former. In doing so, we give up the latter as well.

Occasionally, a nineteenth root downfall is specified:

(19) Belittling others with sarcastic verses or words

This may be included, however, in the first bodhisattva root downfall.

Maintaining Vows

When people learn of vows such as these, they sometimes feel they are difficult to keep and are afraid to take them. We avoid this kind of intimidation, however, by knowing clearly what vows are. There are two ways to explain them. The first is that vows are an attitude we adopt toward life to restrain ourselves from certain modes of negative conduct. The other is that they are a subtle shape or form we give to our lives. In either case, maintaining vows involves mindfulness (dran-pa), alertness (shes-bzhin), and self-control. With mindfulness, we keep our vows in mind throughout each day. With alertness, we maintain watch on our behavior to check if it accords with the vows. If we discover we are transgressing, or about to transgress them, we exercise self-control. In this way, we define and maintain an ethical shape to our lives.

Keeping vows and maintaining mindfulness of them are not so alien or difficult to do. If we drive a car, we agree to follow certain rules in order to minimize accidents and maximize safety. These rules shape our driving – we avoid speeding and keep to our sides of the road – and outline the most practical and realistic way to reach a destination. After some experience, following the rules becomes so natural that being mindful of them is effortless and never a burden. The same thing happens when maintaining bodhisattva or any other ethical vows.

The Four Binding Factors for Losing Vows

We lose our vows when we totally drop their shape from our lives, or stop trying to maintain it. This is called a root downfall. When it occurs, the only way to regain this ethical shape is to reform our attitudes, undertake a purification procedure such as meditation on love and compassion, and retake the vows. From among the eighteen root bodhisattva downfalls, as soon as we develop the state of mind of the ninth or eighteenth – holding a distorted, antagonistic attitude or giving up bodhichitta – we lose, by the very fact of our change of mind, the ethical shape to our lives fashioned by bodhisattva vows, and thus we stop all efforts to maintain it. Consequently, we immediately lose all our bodhisattva vows, not just the one we have specifically discarded.

Transgressing the other sixteen bodhisattva vows does not constitute a root downfall unless the attitude accompanying the act contains four binding factors (kun-dkris bzhi). These factors must be held and maintained from the moment immediately after developing the motivation to break the vow, up until the moment right after completing the act of transgression.

The four binding factors are:

  1. Not regarding the negative action as detrimental, seeing only advantages to it, and undertaking the action with no regrets
  2. Having been in the habit of committing the transgression before, having no wish or intention to refrain now or in the future from repeating it
  3. Delighting in the negative action and undertaking it with joy
  4. Having no moral self-dignity (ngo-tsha med-pa, no sense of honor) and no care for how our actions reflect on others (khrel-med, no sense of face), such as our teachers and parents, and thus having no intention of repairing the damage we are doing to ourselves

If all four attitudes do not accompany a transgression of any of the sixteen vows, the bodhisattva shape to our lives is still there, as is the effort to maintain it, but they have both become weak. With the sixteen vows, there is a great difference between merely breaking and losing them.

For example, suppose we do not lend somebody one of our books because of attachment to it and miserliness. We see nothing wrong with this – after all, this person might spill coffee on it or not give it back. We have never lent it before and have no intention to change this policy now or in the future. Moreover, when we refuse, we are happy in our decision. Lacking moral self-dignity, we are shameless about saying no. We do not care how our refusal reflects on ourselves, despite the fact that as someone supposedly wishing to bring everyone to enlightenment, how could we not be willing to share any source of knowledge we have? Unabashed, we do not care how our refusal reflects on our spiritual teachers or on Buddhism in general. And we have no intention of doing anything to counterbalance our selfish act.

If we have all these attitudes when refusing to lend our book, we have definitely lost the bodhisattva shape to our lives. We have totally fallen down in our Mahayana training and lost all our bodhisattva vows. On the other hand, if we lack some of these attitudes and do not loan our book, we have merely slackened our efforts to maintain a bodhisattva shape to our lives. We still have the vows, but in a weakened form.

Weakening Vows

Transgressing one of the sixteen vows with none of the four binding factors present does not actually weaken our bodhisattva vows. For example, we do not lend our book to someone who asks, but we know it is basically wrong. We do not intend to do this as a policy, we are unhappy about saying no, and we are concerned about how our refusal reflects on ourselves and on our teachers. We have a valid reason to refuse lending it, such as a pressing need for the book ourselves or we have already promised it to someone else. Our motivation is not attachment to the book or miserliness. We apologize for not being able to lend it now and explain why, assuring the person we shall lend it as soon as possible. To make up the loss, we offer to share our notes. In this way, we fully maintain the bodhisattva form of our lives.

We progressively begin to weaken that form and loosen our hold on our vows as we come increasingly under the influence of attachment and miserliness. Please note that maintaining the vow to refrain from not sharing Dharma teachings or any other sources of knowledge does not rid us of attachment or miserliness with our books. It merely keeps us from acting under their influence. We may lend our book or, because of an urgent need, not lend it now, but still be attached to it and basically a miser. Vows, however, help in the struggle to exterminate these disturbing emotions and gain liberation from the problems and the suffering they bring. The stronger these troublemakers are, however, the more difficult it is to exercise self-control not to let them dictate our behavior.

We are progressively more dominated by attachment and miserliness – and our vows are progressively weaker – when, in not lending our book, we know it is wrong to do so, but we hold any one, two, or all three of the other binding factors. These constitute the minor, intermediate, and major levels of minor corruption (zag-pa chung-ba) of our vows. For example, we know it is wrong not to lend our book, but that is our policy and we make no exceptions. If we feel badly about that and are ashamed about how our refusal reflects on us and our teachers, the bodhisattva shape we are trying to put in our lives is still not too weak. But if, in addition, we feel happy about our policy and then, in addition, we no longer care what others think about us or our teachers, we are falling more and more prey to our attachment and miserliness.

An even weaker level of maintaining this shape in our lives begins when we do not acknowledge anything wrong in refusing to lend the book. This is the minor level of intermediate corruption (zag-pa 'bring). As we add one or two of the other binding factors, we weaken this shape even further, with major intermediate corruption and major corruption (zag-pa chen-po) respectively. When all four binding factors are present, we commit a root downfall and completely lose our bodhisattva vows. We are now fully under the sway of attachment and miserliness, which means we are not engaged any more in overcoming them or realizing our potentials so that we can benefit others. In forsaking the involved stage of bodhichitta, we lose our bodhisattva vows, which structure that level.

Strengthening Weakened Vows

The first step to repairing our bodhisattva vows, if we have weakened or lost them, is to admit that our transgression was a mistake. We may do this with an expiation ritual (phyir-'chos, phyir-bcos). Such a ritual does not entail confessing our mistakes to some other person or seeking forgiveness from the Buddhas. We need to be honest with ourselves and with our commitment. If we already felt it was wrong when we actually broke a specific vow, we re-acknowledge our mistake. We then generate four factors that act as opponent forces (gnyen-po'i stobs-bzhi). These four factors are:

  1. Feeling regret about our action. Regret ('gyod-pa), whether at the time of transgressing a vow or afterwards, is not the same as guilt. Regret is the wish that we did not have to commit the act we are doing or one we have done. It is the opposite of taking pleasure or later rejoicing in our action. Guilt, on the other hand, is a strong feeling that our action is or was really bad and that we are therefore a truly bad person. Regarding these identities as inherent and eternal, we dwell morbidly on them and do not let go. Guilt, however, is never an appropriate or helpful response to our errors. For instance, if we eat some food that makes us sick, we regret our action - it was a mistake. The fact that we ate that food, however, does not make us inherently bad. We are responsible for our actions and their consequences, but not guilty for them in a condemning sense that deprives us of any feeling of self-worth or dignity.
  2. Promising to try our best not to repeat the mistake. Even if we had such an intention when transgressing the vow, we consciously reaffirm our resolve.
  3. Going back to our basis. This means to reaffirm the safe and positive direction in our lives and rededicate our hearts to achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all – in other words, revitalizing and fortifying our refuge and aspiring level of bodhichitta.
  4. Undertaking remedial measures to counterbalance our transgression. Such measures include meditating on love and generosity, apologizing for our unkind behavior, and engaging in other positive deeds. Since acting constructively requires a sense of moral self-dignity and care for how our actions reflect on those we respect, it counters the lack of these that might have accompanied our negative act. Even if we felt ashamed and embarrassed at the time of the transgression, these positive steps strengthen our self-respect and regard for how others might think of our teachers.

Concluding Remarks

We can see, then, that the bodhisattva vows are in fact quite difficult to lose completely. So long as we sincerely respect and try to keep them as guidelines, we never actually lose them. This is because the four binding factors are never complete even if our disturbing emotions cause us to break a vow. And even in the case of holding a distorted, antagonistic attitude or giving up bodhichitta, if we admit our mistake, muster the opponent forces of regret and so on, and retake the vows, we can recover and resume our path.

Therefore, when trying to decide whether or not to take the vows, it is more reasonable to base the decision on an assessment of our abilities to sustain continuing effort in trying to keep them as guidelines, rather than our abilities to keep them perfectly. It is best, however, never to weaken or lose our vows. Although we are able to walk again after breaking a leg, we may be left with a limp.